Certain iconic dishes have the power to arouse high passions. If you want to start a verbal food fight in a marketplace in southwestern France, just ask a group of shoppers how they make cassoulet, and stand back.
Everyone can agree on the basics: white beans, meats, aromatic herbs, and vegetables assembled in a casserole and left to cook in an oven, slowly and mostly unattended. With time, the beans are coaxed to creaminess, and all the elements meld into the hearty winter classic that is almost synonymous with the area around Toulouse. But the details inevitably vary from town to town -- and family to family. Fresh pork or cured -- or both? Duck or goose? Lamb, perhaps?
Not bound by local tradition, Americans can choose from all the options with the sole aim of producing a delicious, warming meal with a deep, rich flavor and still be entirely true to the spirit of the recipe. The fact is, many of the folks passionately holding forth about the authentic cassoulet are now buying theirs ready-made. With a little time and the proper ingredients, it's possible to do far, far better than that in your own kitchen.
Get the recipe for Cassoulet.
Text by Edward Schneider; photographs by John Kernick; created by Julie Ho, Abbey Kuster-Prokell, and Lesley Stockton